Everything you always wanted to know about the welfare state, but were afraid to ask

(Photo from Tom Gordon Palmer's Facebook page)

(Photo from Tom Gordon Palmer’s Facebook page)

I had the good fortune yesterday to attend a lunch at which Tom Gordon Palmer, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and an executive at the Atlas Network, was the guest speaker. In an entertaining, often amusing, and clear speech, Palmer introduced us to the realities of the welfare state.*

Palmer opened the “welfare state” portion of his talk by pointing out that, barring a few manifestly silly people, most people today don’t really believe in classic “socialism.” Instead, they support something equally pernicious: the welfare state. Indeed, the welfare state may be even worse than socialism because, by creating utterly dependent political constituencies in lands that are ostensibly democratic, it’s very difficult to correct or dismantle.

While the Romans may have had their bread and circuses, the modern welfare state started with Otto von Bismarck, who envisioned a world, not of bread and circuses, but of steel and blood. Bismarck was the original nationalist, imagining a people emotionally wedded to the state and financially dependent on it.

Palmer made clear that, from the beginning, the welfare state was not socialism.  Unlike socialism, Bismarck’s welfare state, which was the template for all future welfare states, did not disallow private property, which was needed to fund welfare, nor did it centrally control the economy, although it certainly meddled in the economy. The welfare state was essentially a form of bribery using social services, such as health, education, and welfare. The result could be summed up this way: “We, the state, gave you something you consider essential to your well-being. Now you owe us your political support and, if called upon, your military service.”

Bismarck’s opponents saw which way this would end. They feared (correctly) that the welfare state would result in “a nation of helots.” Instead of making people dependent on the state for social service handouts, the opponents wanted the state to fund individually-owned accounts, so that citizens would have an ownership interest in their well-being, as well as marketplace power to choose which services they wanted. The opponents lost.

This first welfare state became the template for Hitler’s fascist Nazi movement. Right until the end of the war, Hitler was an extremely popular leader because he kept giving the German people things. Indeed, in the beginning, the war, rather than causing Germans to get less from the state, actually enabled them to get more. We all know that Hitler confiscated everything that belonged to the Jews, including their teeth and hair, and handed all these things over to the German people as a right or entitlement flowing to them from the State, furthering their allegiance to the Nazi party.  What many don’t know is that Hitler’s troops also looted the treasures and treasuries of all occupied countries, sometimes through straightforward theft, and sometimes by devaluing the nation’s currency so that German troops were able to “purchase” goods for a fraction of their actual worth.

The Nazis were, to date, the most blood thirsty welfare state but, take away the whole bit about world domination and destroying “inferior” people, and you end up with a welfare state that pretty much looks like every other welfare state in the 21st century. According to Palmer, all welfare states share two common traits.

1. Welfare states use the PayGo or “Pay As You Go” method. On paper, PayGo sounds good: the government doesn’t run up a deficit to fund social welfare. Instead, it pays current expenses with current tax revenues. The government takes money from Taxpayer A and immediately hands it over to Welfare Recipient B. As long as there are more Taxpayers than Welfare Recipients, this system works. Problems start, however, when the balance shifts, so that there are more takers than givers.  This problem is inevitable because of a principle called “the tragedy of the commons.”

Imagine a pond with a finite number of slow-breeding fish. The sensible thing for the community is to set a quota on people’s fishing rights so as not to deplete the resource and to give it a chance to regenerate. The sensible thing for the individual, however, is to take advantage of whatever fish the pond has to offer, since he operates on the assumption that, if he doesn’t catch them, somebody else will. It’s this “if I don’t take it someone else will” mentality that permeates so much of the welfare state, with people lining up for handouts because they’re there — never mind that, with everybody lining up, takers will swiftly outnumber givers.  This is so because the takers will include large numbers of former givers who figured “why should I give when I can take?” and jumped in the welfare line.

As long as there are still givers, the system will limp on.  As their numbers decrease, the welfare state uses its coercive power to get more money out of them.  Eventually and inevitably, though, the golden goose is dead — the givers are broke and the nation’s wealth destroyed.  And when the system stops working, the last generation of givers, the ones who were promised that there was a “lock box” or “trust fund” into which their money would be waiting for them, get nothing back for their efforts.

If what I’ve described sounds familiar to you, it should: It’s a pyramid or Ponzi scheme. If someone does it in the business world, he goes to jail. If the entire United States government does it, the takers keep voting into power the political party that promises most sincerely to keep the Ponzi scheme afloat.

The other thing about a government Ponzi scheme that differs from a business Ponzi scheme is the temporal factor. A business Ponzi scheme quickly runs out of new investors.  A government scheme, however, reaches into the future, tagging unborn generations as mandatory contributors to an inherently corrupt economic plan.

2. Welfare states characterize the plan as one of “social rights.” Terminology matters. Privileges come and go, but rights are forever. Roosevelt knew this, which is why, in a 1944 speech, he announced a “second bill of rights” that perfectly encompasses all of the promises of the welfare state:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

Unlike the Founders, Roosevelt didn’t bother to convene a constitutional convention to make his new “bill of rights” official.  Instead, he relied on politician’s greed for votes to make it happen.  He knew that, if you give people things, they will vote for you.  The race was on for both parties to give voters the most things.  The only differences between the parties were the kind of things they would hand out and whether they wanted to pay for these things now or later.  The Democrats usually won this race, because they’d give everything and just put it on the government’s tab, to be paid at some indeterminate future date.

In addition to its permanence, there’s another advantage to a “right”:  It’s not charity, thereby bypassing opposition from people who might have moral objections to receiving charity. Of course, once the welfare system becomes entrenched, that moral generation quickly dies out.

What we’re see today in America is what happened in Greece, Italy, and Spain in the last few of years: The PayGO system is collapsing because the takers vastly outnumber the givers and, in any event, the givers have nothing left to give. Our current entitlement obligations — which are separate from government debt, because we’ve been stealing from the unborn, rather than borrowing from existing creditors — are somewhere in the range of at least $147 trillion.

Moreover, to the extent entitlements must be paid now using current revenues, entitlement spending is swamping government budgets across America. In California, for example, pension payments gobble up most of the state’s budget, leaving no money for other state expenditures, such as basic infrastructure maintenance or debt service.

What Palmer stressed is that, while the welfare state feels like socialism, because of the huge welfare transfer, it’s not socialism. We do not have a centrally managed economy or one without private ownership. What we have, instead, is a government playing a perverted Robin Hood game — it steals from those it decides are rich and gives to those whose votes it wants.

A perfect example of the speed with which the welfare state destroys the economy, said Palmer, is Italy. What few people know or remember is that Italy had a free market after WWII and, not coincidentally, had a huge economic boom, bigger even than Germany’s. That’s why the 1960s were the era of la dolce vita: Italians were young and their economy was vibrant. And that was the moment, in the 1960s, when do-gooders said, “We’re so rich, let’s spread the wealth.” Rather than setting up a true trust fund, or having people pay into their own lock box accounts, Italy set up a welfare state . . . and that was the beginning of the end.

One of the big downsides of the welfare state is that it always ends badly. True socialist economies actually can lateral over to a marketplace economy by having the government back off of economic management.  We’ve seen this in action in some former Soviet bloc countries, such as Latvia and Estonia. Dying welfare states, however, are corrupt from top to bottom, and are therefore more likely to end up as Nazi Germany. In Greece, for example, the public is being torn two ways, both equally evil:  Marxist and Neo-Nazi groups are growing fast.  The latter are every bit as violently antisemitic as the original Nazis were (never mind that there are almost no Jews in Greece).

The absence of Jews within their borders is not a problem for nascent Neo-Nazi movements in bankrupt welfare states.  Indeed, image conscious Neo-Nazis in places as diverse as Greece and Hungary try not to use the word “Jews” (unless they’re talking about the evil Zionist Jews in Israel, of course). Instead, they talk about “New York financial interests” or “dirty foreigners coming to get our social benefits.”

As to that last point, Palmer pointed out that the “dirty foreigners” are on the bottom of the Ponzi scheme pyramid, paying in more than they’ll ever get out. (And no, I don’t know whether he was referring to the Turkish, Algerian, and Moroccan workers all over Europe when he said this, or only to America’s self-imported immigrants from Mexico.)

Because welfare states always bankrupt themselves, default is inevitable. In America, this bankruptcy, which is roughly 20 years in the future, can take three forms: (1) default on the national debt, which is unlikely; (2) a change in the welfare formula (later retirement, death panels, etc.), which is more likely; and (3) inflation, which is most likely and completely disastrous, because it destroys a nation’s wealth, as well as destroying individual lives along the way.

And speaking of wealth, Palmer says that there are two alternatives to a crash. The first is self-help and wealth-creation, which is achieved through secure property rights; a reliable, relatively un-corrupt legal system; and free trade. As an example of this method in action, Palmer told us about Kakha Bendukidze, the man who saved the Republic of Georgia during his tenure as Minister of Economy, Minister for Reform Coordination, and Head of the Chancellery of Government of Georgia. My notes are scrambled about Bendukidze’s acts (they just say “wiped out most of the government”), so let me quote Wikipedia:

He is known as a committed libertarian and strong supporter of market economy, deregulation and privatization, stating that the Georgian government should sell everything except its honor. During 2004-2007, under his leadership, Georgia became the top-reforming country in the world, according to the World Bank’s Doing Business report. In particular, Georgia jumped from 137 to 11 on the ease of doing business scale, ahead of Germany and France.

Since the weakening of the democratic credentials of the Saakashvili government after the police crackdown of the 2007 protests, the government has put the stress on his successful economic reforms. Bendukidze was pivotal in the libertarian reforms launched under Saakashvili, including one of the least restrictive labour codes, the lowest flat income tax rates (12%) and some of the lowest customs rates worldwide, along with the drastic reduction of necessary licenses and permits for business.

In addition to his wildly successful economic reforms, Bendukidze cracked down on rampant corruption and brutality in Georgia’s police force. He did it by doing away with the police entirely, including their buildings, which were filled with windowless, blood-stained “interrogation” rooms. When people objected, he said “If you’re sitting in a dark room and you turn off the lights, does it get darker?” In other words, if the police are themselves a crime problem, getting rid of them probably won’t increase crime. Bendukidze then built up a whole new police force, housed in buildings with windows into every room.

The second alternative to default and collapse is mutual aid societies. America used to be filled with them, although the young generation probably has never heard of them. We oldsters knew them as the Elks, the Shriners, the Freemasons, etc. [Update:  I forgot to add that, the only real surviving mutual aid society in America, according to Palmer, is Alcoholics Anonymous.]  These societies had deep roots, going back to Roman burial societies. They were voluntary associations, complete with codes of conducts and secret rituals, that bound people tightly together. They transcended class. The local gentry would rub shoulders with the butcher and baker as they went through their Masonic or Shriner rituals.

The mutual aid societies had funds into which everyone paid (presumably on a sliding scale, giving their egalitarian membership). These funds would then be disbursed to members in need. Because small, social groups managed the funds, they kept track of the deserving poor versus the undeserving poor. The latter did not get access to these emergency funds. The societies also kept track of moral hazard issues: people were socially pressured to avoid dangerous behaviors that could deplete the funds.

Welfare states hate mutual aid societies because they are the antithesis of big government (whether in the form of socialism or the welfare state). In England, the Fabians, who wanted socialism without bloodshed, used sneaky legislation to destroy these societies.

In 1911, the Fabians got the government to enact the National Health Act. Before the act, a mutual aid society member might voluntarily pay a small amount of money every month into the communal pot.  In exchange, he and his family would get access to perhaps seven different doctors, kind of like an HMO.  The National Health Act mandated that all citizens pay a proportional tax to the government, in exchange for which they’d get access to their original seven doctors, plus perhaps five more. Rather than paying twice for the same benefit, Brits ended their voluntary associations and paid only the coerced tax. (Does this sound familiar to you?) Once all of the voluntary associations were gone, Britain went to the next step, which was to socialize medicine. (I swear that this sounds familiar to me, and I’m talking about recent history, not events overseas in the 20th century.)

At this point in Palmer’s talk, I ran out of paper and began to write in microscopic script that I can no longer read. I can tell you, though, that it is possible to back away from the precipice towards which we’re speeding. As an example, Palmer pointed to Canada which had, as he said, an “adult discussion” about the coming economic collapse. Intelligent, numerate politicians from the center left and center right identified the problems, talked about solutions, and cut Canada’s indebtedness by 50%.

Palmer repeatedly stressed the necessity of having a bipartisan discussion. If Republicans get hold of government, their reforms will be as suspect to 50% of Americans as the Democrats’ “reforms” were. Moreover, as the Bush presidency showed, Republicans with the bit in their teeth spend almost as much as Democrats do, although they use the money to woo different constituencies.  Only divided government slows government spending. The bipartisan aspect of any discussion about avoiding default is the equivalent, I think, along the lines of the fact that it takes two thieves to strike an honest bargain.

(Let me just add here that, when it comes to Republican spending, Palmer expressed his distaste for neocons who, he believes, substitute nationalism for socialism, with equally bad social and economic results. He cited David Brooks as an example, since David Brooks wants to spend lots of money on all sorts of Big Government things that aggrandize America. I agree that Brooks is wrong, but I don’t see him as a neocon. He’s simply a leftie who likes America.)

The problem today with that bipartisan strategy, says Palmer, is the lack of numerate adults in politics, especially among the Democrats.  There were numerate Democrats in the Clinton administration, but Obama’s administration is composed completely of ideologues who are uninterested in facts.

Finally, I see scrawled in my notes the word Putin. Putin, says Palmer, is a pure National Socialist. Those who know him say he’s also a stone-cold killer, who will, without blinking, kill people who stand in the way of his political vision (while ignoring those who don’t). Like Hitler, he uses social welfare to buy people. Like Hitler, he has dreams of vast geographic expansion, with occupied states funding his social welfare. And like Hitler, he’s found a scapegoat which, in Putin’s case, is homosexuals. Putin’s war against homosexuals ratchets up daily, to the point at which it’s somewhere around 1935 for homosexuals unlucky enough to be in Putin’s Russia.

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*I’m basing this post on my scribbled notes, so I apologize in advance if I’ve erred here. I’m sending a copy of this post to Tom Gordon Palmer, so that he can correct me if I put the wrong words in his mouth or, worse, mangled his ideas.

Matched sets, two VDH columns, a second look at Enron, and a little Israel — and an Open Thread

National Review Online had three articles this morning that I thought worth passing on.  The first two form a matched set, although I suspect it was inadvertent that NRO published them on the same day.

We begin with Noemie Emery’s article explaining why Franklin Roosevelt was a singular phenomenon:

Put aside the fact that FDR was a great politician, who would no more have dreamed of passing a game-changing bill without strong and bipartisan backing than he would have thrown himself off a tall building in the belief he could levitate; he still had an advantage that no modern progressive will ever replicate: He became president at the one time in our history when the federal government was too small for its burdens and truly cried out to be expanded.

The match to Emery’s article is a Victor Davis Hanson piece that examines the Progressive yearning for that Rooseveltian past — and its failure in the present.

The third NRO piece I liked was Daniel Pipe’s article pointing out the significant differences we can expect in presidential attitudes towards Israel if Romney is elected or if Obama has a second term.  In that article, Romney speaks about Israel being a symbol for larger beliefs that Americans have about Middle Eastern policies generally:

Second, attitudes toward Israel serve as a proxy for views on other Middle East issues: If I know your views on Israel, I have a good idea about your thinking on topics such as energy policy, Islamism, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, AKP-led Turkey, the Iranian nuclear buildup, intervention in Libya, the Mohamed Morsi presidency in Egypt, and the Syrian civil war.

I particularly liked that bit, because it seemed to me to speak to an interesting debate we had on this blog about whether Israel is a friend, an ally, or a useful . . . not enemy, but non-friend.  Everyone who wrote agreed that America should support Israel, regardless of her friend or non-friend status, and I think Pipes’ article helps explain why we all feel as we do about the necessity of maintaining ties with that beleaguered little nation.

From Israel to Enron.  JKB pointed me to a post that indicates that Enron wasn’t a capitalism failure, it was a government failure.  That is, putting aside the sleaziness of Enron’s upper management, the real problem is that Democrat financial policies created huge incentives for corruption.

The fifth article I’d like to bring to your attention is another VDH column, this one about the way in which Progressive policies (or Obama policies, if you want to parse words) have effectively destroyed the hopes of both the old and the young.  VDH is the first one I’ve seen who has addressed head on the consequence of keeping interest rates down.  Those seeking mortgages liked it, but the same policy has brought financial ruin to too many old people:

The hallmark advice of retirement planning was always to scrimp, save, and put away enough money to make up for retirement’s lost salary, increasing medical bills, and the supposed good life of the “golden years.” If a couple had saved, say, $300,000 over a lifetime (again, say, putting $500 away each month for 30 years at modest compounded interest), then they might expect a so-so annual return at 5% of about $15,000 a year on their stash, or about $1,250 per month.

In other words, perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Retiree could find enough with Social Security to live okay and pass on the principal to their kids. But well aside from the fact that many Americans have been laid off, taken pay cuts, lost home equity, had their 401(k)s pruned, or had to take care of out-of-work relatives, there is no 5% any more on anything, not even 2% or  in most cases 1%.  Saving money means nothing really in terms of return, only the realization that inflation eats away the principal each year.

Put another way, we’re experiencing tremendous inflation, if inflation means that money ceases to have value.  It’s just that the inflation is hidden behind dangerously low interest rates, rather than boldly announcing itself as dramatic price increases.  (Although if the $140 I spent tanking up our family cars this weekend is any indication, inflation is here, loud and clear.)

My Mom falls in this category.  She had dreamed of living of her income.  She is, instead, paying down her principal and hoping that, in a race against time, her dwindling wealth lasts longer than she does.

If you have anything to add here, please do.

Two presidents in their milieus — and how photos can lie *UPDATED/CORRECTED*

Presidents get photographed hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of time.  Each photograph captures a mere moment.  Some are flattering; some less so.  Many, however, go on to become iconic.

My generation, the 1970s generation, is deeply imprinted with this photo of Richard Nixon flashing the victory sign:

RichardNixonFarewell

Then there is this 1932 photograph of FDR, which exemplified the buoyant self-confidence that was so attractive to frightened Americans during a shatteringly deep depression:

20090101-204447-pic-810574964_t756

As a counterpoint to Roosevelt’s jaunty assurance, I kind of like this picture of Barack Obama, caught unawares [UPDATE:  FunkyPhD clues me in to something I didn't know -- the photo is a fake.  I'll keep it here, but add another immediately after of Obama smoking, just to keep the balance.  Incidentally, while the newly added photo is old, the fact is that Obama can't seem to kick the habit.]:

obama-smoking

barack_obama_smoking_weed_picture.0.0.0x0.611x404

Frankly, whether one looks at the doctored photo or the genuine one, each freezes just a moment in time, but both seem to capture so completely the essence of the man (or lack of essence, if you will).

Steve Schippert, who writes at Threats Watch, stumbled across a couple of photos that seem to get to the heart of Bush and Obama, by showing each man in a milieu in which he clearly connects with his audience. The photos make a lovely matched set (and don’t I love those matched sets?) because each is informal and, in each, the President holds a bullhorn, reaching out to his audience.

The first photo shows George Bush, at Ground Zero with rescue workers, shortly after 9/11:

Sept14_BushBeckwithBullhorn

It is, in its own small way, another iconic moment.  9/11 was the turning point in Bush’s presidency and, for at least 8 years, in America’s relationship with the world.  Bush connected deeply with middle America, the America of people with traditional values and a reverence for American exceptionalism.  This is not a chauvinism that demands the degradation of other nations.  It is simply a recognition that we are what we are — and we like it. And the rest of the world hated Bush for his unreserved love for and protective feelings towards America.

The second photo shows Barack Obama, also with a bullhorn, speaking to adoring multitudes in Kenya:

Obama-Kenya-IN01-wide-horizontal

He looks so pleased and comfortable.  This crowd that unabashedly loves him.  They don’t care where he was born, they don’t ask about his grades, they aren’t worried about his past associations, they don’t look askance at his slender employment record dotted with promotions that appeared to be due to connections, not merit.  The picture captures perfectly a mindset that the American media sold to American voters in 2008:  Out in the world, away from America, Obama doesn’t have to prove himself.  He just is.  He’s Obama.

But things are never that simple, are they?  As Obama seeks world peace by cuddling up to bad actors in an effort to disarm them (think Chamberlain and Hitler), people of good will around the world are getting worried.  Certainly Poland and the Czech Republic have reason to fear; Israel fears; South Korea fears; everyone within rocket or suitcase range of Iran fears; Venezuela’s neighbors fear — this is a man who prefers the peace of the grave to the hurly-burly of freedom.

The world is realizing that it’s not enough just to “be Obama.”  The cowboy insult bestowed on Bush might have been an unwitting compliment.  After all, it was Bush who was willing to ride into town and, at great risk to himself, clean up the bad guys.

The Kenyan image of Obama is especially ironic, because Africans and other people concerned about Africa are waking up to the fact that it was George Bush, whitest of white presidents, not Barack Obama, sort-of-black poster boy, who was a real friend to that imperiled continent.

What a cigarette will tell you about a man *UPDATED*

Are you getting the feeling that Obama, contrary to the hope hype, is a very grim, depressed man?   Since the precise moment of his inauguration, his every pronouncement has been redolent of hopelessness and anger.

My feeling is that, if Obama is going to style himself the second Roosevelt when it comes to American economics, he needs to focus not just on Roosevelt’s economic policies, but also on his style.  After all, the economic policies were a disaster, and almost certainly extended the Great Depression by years.  Rather than getting angered by Roosevelt’s perpetual failures to repair the economy, though, the American people were endlessly forgiving.  Why?  Because the public Roosevelt was perpetually jaunty and optimistic. Even as his policies dragged the economy down, down, down, his personality lifted the American people up.

Just think about one of the most iconic images to emerge from the Roosevelt presidency:

Roosevelt and his cigarette holder

Roosevelt and his cigarette holder

Could anything be more cheerful and energized than that uptilted chin and cheerful grin? The cigarette was an exclamation point to the happiness and energy he radiated.

Compare the ebullience of Roosevelt to the now famous picture of Obama smoking:

Obama and his cigarette

Obama and his cigarette

The two picture are like mirror images of each other. Everything about Obama droops — his eyes, the angle of his head, his shoulders. He looks grim, drab and depressed.

Now, I appreciate that these two photographs reflect milliseconds in time and that within milliseconds after the camera flashed, Roosevelt’s face could have turned down and Obama’s brightened up. But the fact is that those two pictures are of a piece with what we know about those men’s personalities.  In speech after speech, Roosevelt heartened the American people:

“The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.”

“First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

“Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own minds.”

“When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.”

And then there are Obama’s statements, now that he’s no longer in hope-filled campaign mode and actually has to govern this messing, sprawling, vital country:

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land — a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America — they will be met.

Wow.  That’s just from one speech (his inaugural), and came about 30 seconds into the speech.  Pardon me while I stick my head in the nearest gas oven.  Nor did it get better afterwards, as he wallowed in a muddle of cliches, wonkish proposals, slightly twisted historical references, and periodic strained attempts at uplift.

Nor have his speeches been better since then.  We’ve had threatening anger (as well as a stupid insistence on the end of business profitability):

There will be time for them [Wall Street Bankers] to make profits, and there will be time for them to get bonuses,” Mr. Obama said during an appearance in the Oval Office with Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner. “Now’s not that time. And that’s a message that I intend to send directly to them, I expect Secretary Geithner to send to them.

We’ve had unrelievedly grim economic forecasts:

President Barack Obama said the economy is “a continuing disaster” for families as he signed executive orders to strengthen unions and put Vice President Joe Biden in charge of a task force on the middle class.

“The recession is deepening and the urgency of our economic crisis is growing,” Obama said at a White House ceremony, citing Commerce Department figures showing the economy shrank 3.8 percent at an annual pace in the last three months of 2008.

And we’ve had self-abasement and recrimination purportedly on behalf of all Americans:

And George Mitchell is somebody of enormous stature. He is one of the few people who have international experience brokering peace deals.

And so what I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating — in the past on some of these issues — and we don’t always know all the factors that are involved.

No wonder the Iranians are crowing about American weakness and passivity.  Obama embodies these failings, and promises to impose them on our nation.

In other words, everything that we see in that picture of Obama and his cigarette, we see in his speeches, predictions, threats and apologies.  He’s got all of Roosevelt’s vices (economic insanity) and none of his virtues (good cheer and optimism).  Americans like optimism, because they are essentially an optimistic people.  It is our national nature, and I do wonder how long it will be before they turn against this man, just as they turned against Carter, the last president to try to drag the American people into his own personal depression.

UPDATEBob Parks has yet another example of Obama’s grim rhetorical style.  Giving people reality checks is one thing.  Creating a sense of crisis to enhance the ability to carry out an agenda is also one thing.  But this unrelenting negativity is pathological and I think it transcends any agenda (although I don’t deny that the agenda is there).

UPDATE II:  I have learned since writing the above post that the picture of Obama was almost certainly photoshopped to add in a cigarette.  I don’t think that changes the substance of my post at all, which is about Obama’s negativity versus Roosevelt’s buoyancy, but it’s important to be accurate about things.